Research Notes · 11/13/2015

Between You and Me

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Scott Nadelson writes about Between You and Me from Engine Books.

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I began what would eventually become the novel Between You and Me when my wife was pregnant with our daughter. The idea of parenthood was new to me, and I was terrified. Even though I was then almost thirty-six, I still felt little more than adolescent, barely able to feed and clothe myself, much less take care of an infant. For most of the past decade, I’d worked as an adjunct instructor and had never earned more than twenty-thousand dollars a year, and even though I’d now been hired into a tenure-track position, I wasn’t yet accustomed to thinking of myself as a functional adult. How in the world could I be a father?

Out of this anxiety, I started writing.

The character who appeared was a man named Paul Haberman. My nebbish, I’ve been calling him ever since. A bachelor and city dweller until he’s forty, Paul meets an alluring single mother and moves to the suburbs to marry her. As well as projecting myself forward into parenthood, I found myself looking backward at my own father and his generation. Paul was born in 1941, and the initial episode takes place in 1981, a confrontation in the parking lot of a New Jersey mall. I wrote the piece as a short story, and it had a complete arc, but when I finished, I wasn’t ready to let go of Paul. There was more I wanted to explore, but as I tried to continue where the story left off, I found myself running into the difficulty I always have when I attempt novels: all the drama felt forced, my bullshit meter buzzing whenever I tried to impose a conflict that would sustain a reader over two hundred pages or more.

Only when I jumped ahead a couple of years and wrote about Paul after he’s settled into his new family life, but still struggling to feel a part of it, was I able to get any traction; I wrote about an encounter with his wife’s ex-husband, and that, too, sustained itself for a complete arc. It happened again when I skipped forward a couple more years and wrote about Paul on a business trip, toying with the idea of having an overseas fling; and again when I hopped a decade and wrote about Paul facing an empty nest, when his stepkids have moved off to college.
I soon realized that what I had on my hands was an episodic novel, a chronicle of my nebbish over twenty years of his marriage, and the research I pursued for the next several years had less to do with content than with form. I spent many hours obsessively reading and re-reading — and watching and re-watching — my favorite episodic comedies: novels, linked story collections, and television shows (mostly Louie).

Here are some of the highlights:

1) The Nachman Stories by Leonard Michaels

These were the stories Michaels was working on when he died, much too young, in 2003. Compared to his explosive early stories, they may seem fairly straightforward, but I love the wryness of the voice and the complexity of the moral quandaries through which Michaels puts his everyman hero. Whenever I found myself stuck writing about Paul, I’d read one of the Nachman stories, and immediately I’d have an idea for a new episode. The structure is simple and beautiful: in each story, Nachman has an odd encounter with a stranger or an acquaintance, and in each he has to face his own limited ability to connect with other human beings.

2) The Works of Love by Wright Morris

Oh, how I love Wright Morris. For a decade I’ve been on a crusade to convince more people to read his work. One of the great American modernists, now mostly forgotten — primarily, I think, because of the humility of his work. Like William Maxwell, he explored the quiet beauty and emptiness of Midwestern lives, and The Works of Love chronicles a man named Will Brady, who drifts from the wilds of pioneer Nebraska to metropolitan life in Omaha and then Chicago, in and out of marriages, always seemingly lost in a dream-world made up of sensations that constantly distract his attention from those around him. This novel also provided the epigraph for my own: “A man who headed no cause, fought in no wars, and passed his life unaware of the great public issues — it might be asked: why trouble with such a man at all?”

3) The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro

I’ve been teaching this book for years, so I’ve probably read it more times than any other on my shelf, and it never ceases to capture me: there are the wild leaps in time (which people have imitated so often they may no longer seem as radical as they were when Munro first wrote the book), the precise portrait of rural poverty, the intense scrutiny of her central character Rose’s psychology. While working on my book, I read Munro’s in particular to understand how she dealt with exposition, especially in some of the later stories, when she refers back to Rose’s childhood; information is never just information in Munro, always deeply connected to exploration of character.

4) Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This one’s an outlier in the group, as it’s not exactly episodic; there are several parallel plot lines about a community living on houseboats in the Thames, particularly focused on Nenna and her daughters, and its timeline is fairly compressed. But her scenes always have the feeling of perfect set pieces, nothing out of place though always on the verge spinning out of control. Plus I’ve learned more about comedy — a quiet but relentless comedy — from Fitzgerald than from anyone else. This book and The Beginning of Spring are comic gems.

5) Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

There are few books I’d call perfect, and this is one. Connell’s portrait of India Bridge is so precise, so funny and unsettling a rendering of buttoned-up Midwest life, that I’m amazed anew every time I read it. On recent reads I studied it in particular for the way it passes through time, using the gaps between its vignettes to suggest days or months or years. And maybe what amazes me most is how we come to the end of two hundred and fifty pages and feel as if we’ve passed through an entire life, with the sense that it has been incredibly full and also far too short, the way I imagine many of us feel at the end of our own.

6) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The granddaddy of episodic comedy, the Quixote serves as a reminder that the single narrative arc structure of novels is a fairly recent invention. Whenever I started to doubt myself, to question whether what I was doing could really work as a novel, I’d go back to La Mancha, read a few episodes, and think, If it was good enough for Cervantes, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me? I told myself I was writing a Quixote of the New Jersey suburbs, and that helped me push through the difficult moments.

7) The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Less well known than Yates’s Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade is a masterpiece of post-war realism, the chronicle of two sisters and their history of damaged and damaging love. Yates somehow manages to maintain a light touch in a book that’s ultimately about domestic abuse, setting the horror in relief against uneasy comedy. It also opens with one of the great first lines in all of American fiction: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” There’s a sweeping dramatic gesture in that opening phrase, and then a zooming in to intimacy. That’s what Yates does throughout the novel, setting Sarah and Emily Grimes’ intimate lives against the sweep of their moment in history.

8) Another Marvelous Thing by Laurie Colwin

Colwin is probably the most under-recognized writer of her generation, a contemporary of Raymond Carver and Anne Beattie whose spare prose had a wider range and more versatility, and who produced ten books before dying of a heart attack at forty-eight. Another Marvelous Thing is the episodic chronicle of a love affair between two well-suited city-dwellers who happened to be married to other people. Colwin’s ear for dialogue is always spot-on, moving from serious to absurd and back from one line to the next. My favorite exchange comes when Billy and Francis decide to break up:

“I can’t do this anymore,” Billy said.
“I guess I can’t either,” Francis said.
“It’s very unsettling,” said Billy.
“It isn’t making me calm and placid, either,” said Francis.
Silence fell, in the manner of a guillotine.

9) Louie by Louis C.K.

What higher praise can I offer Louis C.K. except to call him my hero? The great potential of the sitcom is how it can play off of our expectations, disarming us with laughter, making us vulnerable, and then shifting without warning to more complex emotions. Other shows have done this from time to time: there’s a Happy Days episode in which the Fonz suffers temporary blindness, and his friendship with Richie is pushed almost to a breaking point; and an episode of Family Ties in which Alex Keaton reckons with the loss of a close friend, one of the most realistic renderings of grief I’ve ever seen on network TV. But Louie lives on that level of surprise. You can count on him to begin and end each episode on stage at the Comedy Cellar, smiling his devilish smile, laughing at his own jokes, but the twenty minutes in between might take us anywhere: into a surreal audition to replace David Letterman; into a moving soliloquy about the lives of fat girls; into the excruciating darkness of a friend’s despair and impending suicide. Wherever he goes, I’ll follow.

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Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, most recently Aftermath, and a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. Winner of the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and an Oregon Book Award, he teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.